moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Madam Speaker, I am pleased to begin the debate at second reading of Bill , an act to amend the Canada Elections Act, COVID-19 response.
Across Canada, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change the way we live and interact to protect the health and safety of our fellow Canadians. Elections have been no exception.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Canada has experienced two federal by-elections, four provincial general elections and seven local elections. These elections were delivered in a way that aligned with public health guidelines and sought to provide electors, particularly those who are most at risk of infection, with a variety of ways to safely exercise their right to vote.
With lessons learned from other jurisdictions and building on the recommendations of Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, we have an opportunity to take action to ensure that, should an election be required, a federal election held during the current pandemic can be even more safe and more secure. This is why, on December 10, 2020, the government introduced Bill , which, if passed, would temporarily supplement provisions of the Canada Elections Act in support of a safe, secure and accessible election during the pandemic, again, should one be required.
Bill would reassure voters, election workers and all other participants that the federal electoral process remains safe, secure and accessible, despite the pandemic. To that end, the bill would give voters unprecedented opportunities to vote during the pandemic, whether it be in person or from the comfort and safety of their home.
This bill is based on the October 2020 recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer regarding holding an election in the context of a pandemic and the work of our colleagues, who carried out a study on the same topic.
Bill contains four elements that I will explain in greater detail: a three-day polling period, the safe administration of the vote to residents of long-term care facilities, increased adaptation powers for the Chief Electoral Officer, and the strengthening of measures related to mail-in voting.
To ensure that electors who make the choice to go to vote in person are as safe as possible, the legislation proposes spreading the polling period, in other words the voting day, effectively over three days. Instead of one 12-hour voting day, Bill would establish a three-day polling period, with eight hours of voting on both Saturday and Sunday and the traditional 12 hours of voting on Monday.
Extending the voting period over three days will prevent overcrowding at polls and support electors and poll workers in maintaining physical distancing protocols. Maintaining the Monday would also ensure access to some individuals who may not be able to vote on a Saturday or Sunday. For instance, it recognizes that electors and candidates alike might have religious obligations that inhibit them from voting or campaigning over a weekend.
In addition, maintaining the Monday recognizes that public transit may offer reduced schedules over the weekend and child care options may also be less over the weekend.
With Bill , we are working to reduce barriers for electors with disabilities and electors with young children who may be facing particular challenges during the pandemic.
As the Chief Electoral Officer indicated in his recent report, a pandemic election could complicate efforts to find polling places and recruit election workers. In light of this, a three-day polling period would provide Elections Canada with more opportunities to identify polling places. As the Chief Electoral Officer has stated, Elections Canada may also seek out non-traditional polling places such as arenas or hotels.
In advance of every general election, Elections Canada recruits more than 230,000 Canadians to work at polls across the country. However, as the Chief Electoral Officer highlighted in his recommendations report, recruiting that many election workers during an ongoing pandemic could possibly provide some challenge.
During the 2019 general election, close to half of those workers were 60 years of age or older. Given that this age cohort is at an elevated risk if they contract COVID-19, these people may be less inclined to work the polls during a pandemic election.
Importantly, at least one legislative change made through the 2018 Elections Modernization Act may help mitigate potential recruitment issues. As colleagues will remember, that bill allowed Elections Canada to hire 16- and 17-year-olds as election workers, opening up an entirely new contingent that may be open to working at the polls.
Finally, a variety of other in-person voting opportunities will be maintained under these proposed changes. This includes four days of advance polling, with 12 hours offered on all four days as well. To account for the three-day polling period, advance polls would then be shifted to the Thursday through Sunday in advance of the first day of the polling period.
As we all know too well, long-term care facilities have borne the brunt of COVID-19. Many deaths associated with the pandemic have been linked to long-term care facilities and many facilities, sadly, continue to endure outbreaks. In an effort to curb infections, many facilities limited access to outside visitors. This has been hard on families and friends because they have been unable to visit a loved one in person. Lockdowns at these facilities and differing public health orders in effect across the country make it necessary for us to ensure these residents can still cast a ballot should an election be held during a pandemic.
Accordingly, Bill takes a number of steps that would ensure these electors could safely exercise their right to vote.
First, the legislation proposes a 13-day period prior to the beginning of the three-day polling period that would better facilitate the administration of votes in these facilities. Rather than administer the vote in these facilities exclusively on election day, which is now how residents would have been able to vote in past federal elections, the legislation proposes establishing a lengthier period which the vote could be delivered, for example, by mobile polls. As COVID-19 conditions vary across provinces and territories and from region to region, this period would enable Elections Canada to better plan according to the unique context of each long-term care facility.
Bill would also allow returning officers to establish a polling division composed of a single long-term care facility or of a particular part of a long-term care facility. This amendment recognizes the existence of dedicated quarantine zones in some long-term care facilities and ensures a positive COVID-19 test will not impede a resident of these facilities from being able to vote.
Taken together, these amendments aim to ensure that senior citizens and those living with disabilities in long-term care facilities, citizens who are among the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic, have safe and reliable opportunities to exercise their right to vote.
At present, subsection 17(1) of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt provisions of that act, “if an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance or an error makes it necessary...for the sole purpose of enabling electors to exercise their right to vote or enabling the counting of votes”.
In the last election, this is one of the powers the Chief Electoral Officer exercised in order to allow workers temporarily residing outside their electoral districts to vote.
However, the ongoing uncertainty generated by the current pandemic justifies broadening the grounds for adapting this legislation.
Under Bill , therefore, the Chief Electoral Officer would have the power to adapt the provisions of the act to ensure the health or safety of electors or election officers.
This amendment is particularly important to protect not only voters but also the election workers and volunteers who dedicate themselves to the democratic process. As I said earlier, Canadian election workers are older on average. If older individuals decide to work once again during a general election—and of course we hope they will—we must do our best to ensure that they can do this important work safely.
Over the last year and during the pandemic, jurisdictions in Canada and abroad that held elections witnessed a significant increase in the use of mail-in ballots: for example, British Columbia and its October 2020 election, the United States' November 2020 presidential election and, most recently, Newfoundland and Labrador's election. In response, Bill includes measures designed to improve access to mail-in voting. Mail-in voting, which is safe and secure, has been instrumental in providing opportunities to older electors, electors with disabilities, immunocompromised electors and those who are unable to vote in person because of the pandemic.
While electors in Canada have long been able to vote by mail and Elections Canada has significant experience safely administering the federal vote-by-mail system, Bill proposes specific amendments in anticipation of a sharp increase in mail-in voting. First, Bill C-19 would allow electors to apply to register to vote by mail online rather than through the mail or in person, as is currently the case. Providing this option would not inhibit registering to vote by mail or in person for those without access to the Internet. By allowing online registration, we are simply giving Canadians one more option to register to vote by mail.
Finally, in an effort to further simplify the registration process, Bill would provide electors with the ability to use an identification number, such as a driver's licence, to establish their identity and residence when registering to vote by mail. Presently, electors are required to provide a copy of their ID when registering to vote by mail, which may inhibit voting by individuals without access to printers, scanners or photocopiers at home. More precisely, it would allow Elections Canada to use information already in its possession to confirm an elector's identity and residence.
In recognition of potential privacy implications, electors would need to explicitly consent to Elections Canada using this identification number to facilitate their vote-by-mail registration. Some electors may choose to register to vote by mail, but with circumstances changing regularly across the country, they may not be able to return their ballot kits by mail in time. In anticipation of this, Bill proposes the installation of secure mail reception boxes at every polling station across the country.
Bill would also allow electors who initially chose to vote by mail to change their minds and vote in person. However, to do so, electors would need to either return the mail-in vote kits they received from Elections Canada when they went to vote in person or sign a declaration that they had not yet voted. Elections Canada has a robust series of measures to deter electoral fraud. Returning the mail-in vote kits or attesting in writing that electors had not yet voted would act as a deterrent to any malicious actors and would support the integrity of the vote. These measures would also help create an appropriate paper trail for auditing and enforcement processes.
It is important to remember that we are not proposing permanent changes to Canada's electoral law. All of the proposed legislative amendments that we have outlined are temporary. They would only apply to an election that is called 90 days after this legislation receives royal assent or earlier if the Chief Electoral Officer has indicated that all the necessary preparations have been completed.
Moreover, these legislative changes would cease to be in effect six months after a general election was administered during the pandemic or earlier, as determined by the Chief Electoral Officer after consultation with Canada's chief public health officer.
With Bill , we are maximizing electors' opportunities to exercise their right to vote. If the bill is passed, electors will get four days of advance polling, three days of regular polling and better access to mail-in voting. Bill C-19 would also give Elections Canada greater legislative flexibility and authority to safely administer an election.
In closing, I invite our colleagues to examine Bill C-19 so it can be studied by a committee and amended if necessary. We want to work with all parliamentarians to ensure that elections will be safe and accessible for all Canadians.
Madam Speaker, I will begin my comments on this important piece of legislation by sharing some anecdotes from recent federal elections. The names of the two people I am about to talk about are not their real names, but the people they represent are familiar to anyone involved in past elections.
My mind goes first to Sue. She is a loving grandmother who has spent her years tending to her family and household, volunteering for charitable causes in her community and enrolling as a poll worker when general elections were called. Her knowledge of the community and its members is derived from decades of friendship and service.
Her institutional knowledge of the electoral process is the kind that is acquired from working multiple elections at all levels over a lifetime. She is the kind of person that poll workers, scrutineers and volunteers flock to with their questions in search of answers and insight. Without people like Sue, elections in Canada would be a shamble. Her dedication is a credit to our country and is essential to the functioning of our democracy.
Also coming to mind is someone like Gurpreet. He is a new Canadian, having arrived in his new homeland from abroad about a decade ago. As a poll clerk in his first Canadian election of any kind, he is proud of his role in promoting democracy, standing up for democracy, and ensuring a fair and transparent process of ballot counting and voting.
This is an exciting new experience for Gurpreet, which gives him an inside view of how the Canadian election system works. He has the added benefit of serving as a poll clerk alongside Sue, the seasoned DRO and loving grandmother, whose intimate knowledge of Canadian elections puts him at ease. It allows him to participate and work within the electoral process with comfort, confidence and pride.
Colleagues, these anecdotes are not exceptional. This type of interconnectedness, of community members coming together from disparate backgrounds and various life experiences, such as students, seniors, new Canadians and stay-at-home moms, to serve the rest of us by upholding the integrity in our democratic process is what happens in every federal election in polling places nationwide.
This coming together of the community is important for fostering trust in Canadian elections. The adage that all politics are local is especially salient here. People are more likely to trust their neighbours and friends. That trust is especially important when it comes to counting our ballots and having faith in the outcome of that count.
However, let me be clear: Canadians do not want an election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the actions taken by opportunistic incumbent provincial governments over the last year, 80% of those surveyed are against forcing Canadians to polling stations at this time. Despite this, we are here debating government Bill an act to amend the Canada Elections Act, COVID-19 response.
Bill was introduced in December 2020. This was, I might add, before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs issued its recommendation after studying the matter in depth. Putting aside the misplaced hubris of the Liberal-knows-best approach, there are changes in this proposed legislation that do meet the threshold of common sense, but sadly this does not extend to all of them. There are a number of issues in Bill that have been overlooked.
If an election is held in a pandemic, the protection of poll workers, voters and our tried and true Canadian democratic process is essential. My first point is that, from the outset, I am especially concerned about the provision, or lack thereof, for voting in long-term care facilities and other institutions home to immune-compromised Canadians. These are the places where we have seen the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in this country.
We do not need the grave mistakes of this past year repeated by increasing the time our vulnerable citizens are exposed to the avoidable risk of external transmission. Everyone must be given the opportunity to vote, and clarifications are needed to ensure that those in long-term care facilities have the ability to vote safely. In these instances, polling stations should be open for the minimum amount of time it take for residents to vote, although at multiple periods of time during the 13-day provision mentioned by the president of the Privy Council.
My second point is the glaring issue of the absence of a built-in sunset clause to remove what must remain temporary changes. Instead, we have the following in the bill:
The enactment also provides for the repeal of the new Part six months after the publication of a notice confirming that the temporary rules in that Part are no longer required to ensure the safe administration of an election in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have been told to self-isolate for weeks upon weeks by the federal government and other governments in this country. We are not falling for that again. The addition of a sunset clause containing a fixed date that these provisions cease to be enforced is required.
My third point is that we need clarity when it comes to proposed powers for the CEO to withdraw the writs of election. It must be made clear to us now, while we debate this bill, how any decision to withdraw the writs would be made. Ending an election midway through is a decision with major ramifications that cannot be made arbitrarily.
Common sense can foresee that any decision to end the election before voters have had their say would sow chaos, confusion, and distrust that would last for generations. With great power comes the great responsibility to explain its use. If we cannot explain to Canadians why the CEO would pull the plug on an election, perhaps we should do likewise and pull the plug on this clause of the bill.
Another significant area of concern is the mail-in ballot provisions proposed by the legislation. Bill , as it is presently written, states that an elector who requests a special ballot:
...shall ensure that the special ballot is sent before the close of polling stations on the last day of the polling period and is received by the special voting rules administrator in the National Capital Region no later than 6:00 p.m. on the Tuesday following the last day of the polling period.
This would mean that Elections Canada would count a hypothetical vote received as much as 23 hours after the general election polls had closed.
I have heard of ballots being disbursed and cast prior to a general election having been called. This scenario was central to the case of Mitchell v. Jackman, which made its way to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador. The main argument in that case was whether it was constitutional for special ballots to be issued to voters in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to a provincial election. It was decided in 2017 that such a rule was an infringement of voters’ charter rights under section 3, the democratic rights clause.
On the other hand, I am at a loss when it comes to finding an example of an election in Canada where ballots were accepted after the close of general election polls, notwithstanding the present electoral calamity that has befallen Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, who are mired in an election that should have wrapped up almost a month ago. Counting ballots after polls have closed is one thing. It is very normal, and it happens in every election. Accepting ballots after the general election polls have closed is another thing. It is abnormal because it does not happen.
If this bill passes in its present form, who knows how long the tallying process will take for millions of mail-in ballots received by Ottawa and, under the current bill, counted in Ottawa. Valid ballots accepted for the count should be received prior to the close of voting. That is why we have an election day. Even in British Columbia, whose recent provincial election garnered notoriety for the 13-day lag time between the close of the polls and the counting of mail-in ballots, it was only those votes received by the close of the polls that were counted.
I agree with the provision for the Chief Electoral Officer to increase the number of elections officers. Arguably, this is something that should have been done in previous elections. It is going to take a coordinated, collaborative civic effort to ensure the proper execution of an election during a pandemic. This is especially true when it comes to special ballots. Once the writs are issued, there should be a large and well-advertised window of opportunity for voters to request a special ballot online within the context of this new extended writ period.
To streamline the process from the beginning when applying for special ballots electronically, voters should be required to provide evidence that they are Canadian citizens over the age of 18 and it must be verified that they are indeed living. There are those on the other side of this place who vilify my party for expecting voters to provide identification. I do not understand this. We must strive to provide as many options for voting as possible. We cannot infringe on the sacred right of citizens to vote, but, quite simply, voters do have to be verified citizens. Elections Canada's current ID verification options are many, so I will not belabour that point.
It is a safe assumption that demand for mail-in ballots will be high in the next federal election, likely the highest ever seen. There is a clear precedent in Canada for giving people a window of opportunity, contained within the writ period, to vote by special ballot.
We all want the next federal election to be conducted with the utmost integrity, as we do for every election, but allowing the receipt and counting of ballots after an election day opens our process up to the speculation of electoral fraud and uncertainty. Special ballots should be postmarked one week before the election period commences in order to be counted on election day. Otherwise, if mail is not an option because of time, special ballots should be accepted at returning offices and polling places in a designated drop-box up to the close of polls on election day, as previously discussed.
Moreover, people trust their friends and neighbours. For folks like Sue and Gurpreet, who I mentioned earlier, sending special ballots to riding offices to be counted by local officials will enhance Canadians' trust in election outcomes, especially when we are anticipating that the next federal election will see an astronomical number of votes by mail. We cannot have an extended period of uncertainty between the close of polls and the ballot count during the pandemic and in a minority Parliament situation especially.
Now is not the time to fundamentally change the way we do elections in Canada. During these unsure times, our institutions must perform at the highest standards. Again, as we saw in British Columbia's election, mail-in ballots will comprise a significant portion of the total vote count, as over 30% of all votes cast in B.C. were by special mail-in ballots.
Virtually all votes cast in the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election that is currently under way will be by special mail-in ballot. On the federal scale, this could mean 10 million ballots in the mail and possibly more. Banking on sending millions of special ballots directly to Ottawa for processing is a recipe for disaster and delay. Mail-in ballots, although they may be sent from anywhere, should be received and counted in the ridings in which they are meant to be cast. If Elections Canada feels it needs more personnel on the ground in constituencies, it can send more staff as needed, or better yet, it can train the local staff to perform these tasks, as it has always done.
It is an honour and a privilege to stand in the House. Having run in two federal elections, I fully grasp the importance of having local returning officers as administrators and arbiters. In my riding, our returning officer has the ability to bring candidates from across the political spectrum together so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the rules of the electoral game. I think of myself and all of the candidates in my riding in the last election. We felt more assured when our returning officer brought all the candidates together to sit at a table and hash it out so we were all on the same page. That needs to happen and that is a good thing.
I have the utmost confidence in my local returning officer, and I would place a friendly bet that most of my colleagues here feel the same way in their ridings. I trust my local returning officer to oversee the election in my riding. I have faith that they can also oversee the counting of special ballots cast by the voters I represent. If more special ballots are anticipated than ballots from voters on advance or regular polling days, why not have Elections Canada and its returning officer redeploy staff to handle the special ballot count in each riding?
Local elections must remain local. We do not elect Ottawa representatives for our communities. We elect community representatives to fight for our interests in Ottawa.
The importance of Elections Canada workers and scrutineers from the community cannot be overstated. This ensures trust in the local electoral process, and their involvement in it nurtures the Canadian values of inclusion and diversity. I believe local elections and the participation of Canadians within their own communities build confidence in our institution.
Scrutineers have been a fixture of Canadian elections since our earliest days. They cast a watchful eye on the proceedings of election day, the counting of the votes and on the behaviour of other scrutineers. They report this information back to the candidates they represent. Outsourcing the counting of special ballots to Ottawa is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent. For starters, local scrutineers, who are my scrutineers and my opponents' scrutineers, would not be able to observe the counting of special ballots that will impact the outcome of the election in any given riding.
While national leaders secure much of the spotlight, we must remember that in our Westminster parliamentary tradition, we do not elect a prime minister and a deputy prime minister as is done in republics with the president and vice-present. We elect members of Parliament from unique constituencies across the nation. Every member of the House is accountable to the electorate. We have 338 members. This raises the question of how transparent and accountable the vote counting would be in my riding when we are anticipating that a significant chunk of the votes in Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon would be cast by mail and counted by unfamiliar strangers situated several thousand kilometres away in the national capital region.
As my speech comes to a close, I readily acknowledge that the changes to the Canada Elections Act, as proposed by the government, are not meant to be malicious and were made with good intentions. However, we all know where that road leads. The implications of the changes in Bill are great and wide-reaching. These changes, if adopted, will change the way Canadian voters conduct elections.
If the Liberal government proceeds to make these changes unilaterally, then it will be undermining Canadian democracy. I am assured to hear from the previous speaker that this will not be the case. I do not say these words hyperbolically or inflammatorily. Amending the rules that govern elections in Canada requires buy-in from all parties in the House.
We on this side are open to amendments to the Canada Elections Act to account for the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our system works, but it requires updating from time to time. This is one of those times. I hope the government realizes that and engages all members in a better and more constructive way to get this right. After all, it is from the voters, represented by all members in the House, that the current government and any government derive their consent to govern.
All we have to do is look to our neighbours to realize that Canada's electoral system works best for Canadians. Our system is trusted. As I mentioned in the beginning, it is a system in which folks like Sue and Gurpreet contribute to the integrity of the electoral process and the final results. People trust their friends and neighbours. This is why we need mail-in ballot counting to be done at the local level: in the ridings, at the returning offices in the communities where electors—
Madam Speaker, before I begin my speech on Bill , I want to take a moment on this March 8 to commend my colleagues from all parties and thank them for their commitment to advancing equality, equity and parity.
The Bloc Québécois supports the bill in principle. We cannot be against apple pie and against adjusting the provisions in the bill in order to comply with the public health guidelines of Quebec and the provinces in the event that an election is held during the pandemic. In our opinion, the provisions in the bill should be changed, including when it comes to voting in seniors' residences, the deadline for receiving mail-in ballots and the provisions on a three-day voting period.
Let me provide some context for those who are watching us. The bill deals specifically with the right to vote and vote counting. We could have gone much further than this to adjust the Canada Elections Act during a pandemic. Among other things, we could have talked about political party financing. I would remind hon. members that the government's attempt to reform the voting system failed.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley testified before a committee. He said that, in the interests of fairness, we must reinstate the per-vote subsidy as soon as possible. If the voting system is not being reviewed, then we should at least ensure that the vote is not totally lost.
In our electoral system, some people vote for a more marginal party that may have no chance of getting a member elected. Those people should at least be able to contribute through their vote. Through their vote, they would contribute to the fact that a sum of money is tied to the vote they put in the ballot box. An election is a debate of ideas, a democratic debate.
From the very beginning of the election period, there need to be fair provisions that allow for the exchange of ideas. Every party must be able to put its ideas forward. It was no surprise that fundraising has been a little more difficult during this pandemic, in light of social distancing rules. Some political parties dipped their hands into the cookie jar and decided to grant themselves the wage subsidy that was intended for companies. Meanwhile, some sugar shacks in Quebec were denied access to the wage subsidy and are struggling to get by.
It is really something for the government to want to make some minor changes, only to then engage in unseemly behaviour. As of this moment, I do not think that the parties that promised to pay back the money have done so. We need to amend the Canada Elections Act. I think that reinstating the per-vote subsidy would have been the perfect way to ensure that no voter felt that their vote had been wasted under certain circumstances.
That said, we support the principle of the bill, which would make some amendments. The bill provides for a polling period of three days, consisting of eight hours of voting on Saturday and Sunday and 12 hours of voting on Monday. I mention this because if the bill is adopted as is, a lot of information will have to be circulated to voters.
The bill also provides for a 13-day period before polling begins to facilitate the administration of the vote in long-term care facilities and seniors' residences where people with disabilities live. These 13 days plus the three-day polling period add up to a total of 16 days.
Another amendment in the bill would give the Chief Electoral Officer more power to adapt the rules for pandemic-related reasons in order to ensure the health and safety of voters and election workers.
Finally, the bill provides for the implementation of a number of measures to facilitate mail-in voting, including setting up reception boxes at all polling stations and giving voters the option of registering for mail-in ballots online.
That is an overview of what is proposed. The government can hardly wait to call an election, and it was in such a rush that it introduced its bill before the committee that was working on those amendments could even propose measures. The committee report includes a supplementary opinion by the Bloc Québécois, which I would like to make members and others who may not have read the report aware of. By doing a quick survey on the ground and talking to different people, we realized that there could be problems administering the election if the bill is left as is.
The Canada Elections Act is the tool that governs our solemn concurrence in what I call the social contract, which is the right to vote. If a decision is made to amend the act, that fragile balance between the fundamental right to vote and the integrity of the vote must be protected. The right to vote comes with an obligation to prove one's eligibility as a voter. Casting a vote is a solemn act that must be totally free of constraint and undue influence. That is why we have a designated day, a single day on which voters exercise the right to vote.
For some years now, voters have been able to exercise the right to vote pretty much throughout the entire election campaign. This bill provides for four advance polling days, three voting days, 13 days of voting at certain institutions where seniors reside, and the option to vote every day up to 34 days before voting day in the case of a 36-day calendar. That means a lot of opportunities to vote. We must ensure that none of those opportunities results in irregularities. I am not talking about deliberate fraud, but certain problems could arise.
Mail-in ballots are currently offered to people who are outside their electoral district. The current wording of the act provides that these people can vote up until 6 p.m. on polling day, but the bill would allow mail-in ballots to come in until the day after polling day. I think this could cause some problems. We have to consider this carefully. We have to ask ourselves why, during a pandemic, we are talking about three days of voting, when people can vote at any time during the campaign or on the four advance polling days.
There is also the matter of voting on weekdays. Why choose Monday when, during a pandemic, we absolutely need locations and logistics that allow for social distancing during voting, because a lot of people are going to travel to vote?
The choice of Saturday and Sunday was welcomed and requested by the Chief Electoral Officer, who, by the way, has the expertise and understands these logistical problems. Every election, he is the one who has to find election workers, as well secure voting sites that make suitable polling places.
Speaking from experience, I can say that in Quebec, holding the vote on a Monday in addition to Saturday and Sunday means the polling location would have to be changed, unless the same location can be used all three days. School gymnasiums are typically used as polling places, and it would be easy to use them. However, Quebec school boards do not rent out their facilities on Mondays, either during pandemics or under normal circumstances. We would therefore end up in a situation where we would not have enough polling locations to hold a safe election. As I understand it, the purpose of Bill is first and foremost to make elections as safe as possible.
It will also be important to clarify what will happen during the 13 days leading up to the three polling days in certain residences. Our seniors must be given enough time to vote, period.
Looking back at 2019, in some seniors' residences—and I am not necessarily talking about long-term care homes—advance voting took place, and there was only one polling day. All those individuals had ample time to go to the polls without any problem. I have no problem with adding two days, but how can we ensure a secure presence for 13 advance voting days and three polling days? Why should other people be encouraged to go into seniors' residences?
Having spoken with some seniors, I can say that they are not very keen on the idea at the moment. I think the returning officer might have some serious logistical problems organizing that. Obviously, returning officers would be the ones to decide, since they are being given the power to do so.
The other problem is the number of mail-in ballots there will be. A person might request a mail-in ballot because they can vote any day. Voters can currently vote any day at the returning officer's office. If I want to vote on the fifth day of the campaign without leaving home, I think that I would request a mail-in ballot. This would eliminate the problem of having too many people in one place. I imagine that the votes would be counted, that a list would be kept up to date and that the person would not be able to go to the advance poll.
There are also the people who would want to vote in person and those living outside the riding. Where will the votes be counted? The counting should obviously be done within each riding.
However, what happens when a person has requested a mail-in ballot but, for whatever reason, has forgotten about it? Once a person requests a mail-in ballot, they are removed from the voter list. They cannot go to an advance poll or vote during the three days currently provided for. If, for whatever reason, the person goes to the polling station and says that they did not mail in their ballot, will they be stopped from voting?
If they make a declaration and are allowed to vote when they have already cast their ballot, we have a problem. Furthermore, this vote cannot be subtracted from the tally. The ballot is secret, so there is no way to know who they voted for. With regard to mail-in ballots, we must at least be able to ensure that the vote will remain confidential.
We could have discussions about that. I hope we will be able to reach a consensus. However, I do not think it is necessary to extend the mail-in voting deadline to Tuesday in order to count the votes after the fact.
There is a better way to avoid the situation I am talking about. Since people will have been able to vote in advance one week before, those voting by mail could have up until the Friday prior to the polling period to submit their mail-in ballots. This would make it easier to tell someone that their mail-in ballot has been received and that they cannot vote again. The different parties could verify this. It would therefore be impossible to vote in person and by mail. Furthermore, even if the voter were punished, what would happen with that vote? It would already be in the system. Why even allow for this kind of anomaly? Even if there is minimal risk, one fraudulent vote is one too many, especially since this can be avoided.
We must, in general, be cautious. Let us send this bill to committee, look things over and, most importantly, follow the advice from the Chief Electoral Officer, because we will need election workers. It is quite common these days for election workers to be over the age of 60, but there could be some resistance during this pandemic.
Sure, vaccination will do its thing, but this all depends on when the election is called. We must therefore make separate plans unrelated to the vaccination efforts. We need to find the best plan for the election workers.
The Chief Electoral Officer pointed out that people who normally work on Mondays would be available to staff the polls if the election were held on a Saturday or Sunday. We must take these technical and logistical considerations into account if we wish to succeed.
Madam Speaker, before I jump into my remarks on Bill , I want to take this opportunity on the floor of the House to recognize that it is International Women's Day. I also note that today we are debating two different bills. We are debating Bill right now, which is about pandemic elections, and the government plans to call Bill in the afternoon, which is about dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Of course, we know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate influence on women in Canada, particularly in its economic impact, because those in the caring economy and those working in low-wage jobs have seen a disproportionate impact on their finances. I think it is important not only to recognize the general importance of International Women's Day but also to recognize its importance in the context of the debates we are having today in the House.
On Bill , I am very glad that it has finally made it to the floor of the House of Commons. As far back as last June, I had reached out as the NDP's democratic reform critic to the other parties to try to get a conversation started on this issue. Unfortunately, that did not happen over last summer, but it did begin finally in the fall, in the procedure and House affairs committee.
For Canadians who are interested in this issue, both reports by the procedure and House affairs committee and the testimony that is on the record there would be a benefit in trying to get a better handle on some of the issues that are at play and some of the very real challenges that Canadians and the country would face in the event of a pandemic election. That is why the NDP has worked hard in this Parliament to make Parliament work and to try to find and broker compromises that would allow us to respond to the needs of people here in Canada to get us through the pandemic and to make sure that partisan politics are not distracting us from that very important task.
When it comes to the bill itself, I will say that the procedure and House affairs committee has heard consistently that there needs to be more flexibility than our current system allows, and in a few different ways, in order to make sure of how things will progress if we have a pandemic election. Of course, we have heard from many sides of the House today that the best way to protect both public health and our democracy during this pandemic is to avoid having an election.
We know that it takes effort on all sides of the House, but principally we need a government that is willing to work in good faith with the other parties in order to define its path forward and to define its pandemic response. We have seen the government do this at various times during the pandemic so far. We have been able to find that path forward, and I think that as long as that spirit of collaboration persists on the government benches, we will be able to continue to find that path forward until it is rightly and properly safe to have an election and let Canadians decide what they liked, what they did not, whose interventions they appreciated and whose they did not, and what they want in terms of a government as we get out of the pandemic and get on with the recovery in earnest.
What are some of the things that Bill would do?
Bill would grant an additional adaptation power to the Chief Electoral Officer, which we think is a good thing. There is clearly going to be a need to adapt some things on the fly, as it were, in response to emerging conditions. We think it makes sense, because the Chief Electoral Officer already has power to adapt the act, that we would add public health explicitly as a consideration that the Chief Electoral Officer could take into account when exercising that power to adapt.
There are some moves in the right direction in terms of long-term care and trying to clear some of the legislative roadblocks to conducting a vote safely in long-term care facilities. I am not sure that the bill addresses all of the issues there, but certainly being able to have one polling station per institution, which the legislation currently does not allow for, is an important change. This would provide flexibility for Elections Canada in order to make sure that legislative requirements would not cause Elections Canada either to require the same people to move from institution to institution—which clearly is not a good idea during the pandemic, and in many cases not consistent with local public health orders—or, just as bad or worse from the point of view of democracy, to cancel a polling station in a long-term care facility because of an inability to do it at one facility only.
One of the important themes to bear in mind for members as we debate this legislation and for Canadians as they consider this larger point about a pandemic election is that our job is twofold: It is not only to protect public health, although it is obviously also that, and very importantly that, but to protect democracy as well.
If we have an election during the pandemic that succeeds in protecting public health at the expense of people not voting, either because their perceptions and fears about personal health cause them to choose not to participate or else because people who would choose to participate face insurmountable barriers in doing so, then we would have failed. It is not enough to simply protect public health; we also have to protect our democracy. That is a difficult thing to do, and that is one of the reasons that it is better if we do it in a preventive way by working well at the job we were elected to do, which is to defend the interests of Canadians, and prevent the triggering of an election in any event.
Of course, the NDP has asked many times in this House for the to commit to not unilaterally calling an election, which is now consistent with the recommendation in the final report of the procedure and House affairs committee. We have not had that commitment yet. I think that would go a long way to reassuring Canadians that we are not going to find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of a pandemic election.
There are some other things that the bill would do. I know my time is even more limited today than usual, given some of the proceedings of the House earlier today, but I do want to speak to some of things that have yet to be addressed in the legislation. By way of challenge, I would note something that the also noted in his lead speech on the bill, which is that these provisions are only set to come into force 90 days after this bill receives royal assent—in other words, after it passes through the House and the Senate and then gets the final nod from the Governor General.
That is an important point to bear in mind when we are addressing the general theme of a pandemic election: Even if the legislation were to pass and receive royal assent today, which of course is not going to happen, we would still have to wait another 90 days before an election could be held under these new rules, as opposed to the existing ones. That is important to mention. Although I appreciate that it will take time for Elections Canada to bring these new measures into force, I think it is important to the general point of getting better reassurances from the and the government about whether we will have an election or not. As much as some people in the House will like certain things about this bill, even if we were to pass it today, it would not be in effect for some time, so there is clearly a need to be working in collaboration for some time to come so as to avoid an election on the existing set of rules, which I think are not adequate to the circumstances.
I also know that there has been a lot of talk about whether we should accept ballots postmarked by election day, whether the cut-off should be election day for mail-in ballots and whether the cut-off should be the Tuesday after the election day, as this legislation foresees. There is something I want to put on the record about this point, because I think there is more than one way to solve this problem. I think the best way will be the one on which we can find as much agreement as possible. I beseech members in all parties to keep an open mind about this, because it is a very difficult circumstance.
I do think that having a hard cut-off point for when ballots are accepted that corresponds to election day really does put us in a risky situation. Some people may have applied in good faith for a ballot and did not get it in a timely manner and did as much as they could to ensure that it would get to Elections Canada.
This is recognizing, of course, that “doing as much as they could” will be different for different people. It matters whether someone has their own vehicle and whether the person is able to drive or not. It matters whether or not they have someone in their support network who can get them to a designated drop box outside a returning office. It matters how easy it is for them to get to the local mailbox, which can vary depending on the weather. There are all sorts of things that come into play. It is not like a normal election.
I want us to ensure that people who apply for a special ballot but do not get it in time, or who for other reasons are not able to get it in the mail or the drop box in time are not deprived of their right to vote. This is because I think we have a double duty here both to public health and to democracy.
It would be tragic if a number of Canadians were not able to exercise their right to vote because of administrative complications and deadlines beyond their control. I do think it would be harder to meet the normal deadlines of an election we are used to if we have a pandemic election.
I call for some open-mindedness on that, as we go forward. I am sure it will be the subject of some debate at committee when the bill finally gets there, as I am confident it will. The discussion is not over, and I think it is important that we perhaps at least agree on some of the guiding principles for that conversation before partisan lines get drawn too starkly in the sand.
I do think there are a number of things that are not addressed in the bill that ought to be addressed. For instance, there is the question of how to collect nomination signatures. Everyone in this House knows that 100 signatures from people who live in the riding are needed in order to be officially nominated as a candidate with Elections Canada. Usually that is done by going door to door with sheets of paper and pens. That is not going to make a lot of sense in the context of a pandemic election, so we need another way that is appropriate and safe to do that.
This bill does allow for people to apply for a special ballot online. While I think that is a great thing, a great tool, and that it will be wonderful for the people who are able to avail themselves of that because they have the technological literacy and the equipment in their own home, I am very mindful that there are a lot of people for whom that technology is not accessible. Those people are going to need to apply in person without having to print the documents at home.
We in the NDP recognize that we have an incredibly valuable resource at our fingertips, which is Canada Post. It has a number of postal outlets in every community across the country with people who already check ID for other reasons. I think it is well equipped to be a space for those who need it to go and apply for a special ballot in person.
We encourage the government and Elections Canada to look very seriously at leveraging that network to ensure that people can access their right to vote, if the time comes when they will be required to do so. Whether that is best done in the legislation or not is a question we are open to discussing, but seeing a commitment to that is important in recognizing all the people for whom online is simply not the best tool.
We have talked a little bit about the campus vote program. There are obviously some different opinions about whether that ought to continue, but we heard from student representatives at committee. Students very clearly continue to live and work on campuses, and we can increase access to the vote if we maintain that important program. It ought to be done.
I think one of the other things that we need to see, which I am sure Elections Canada will be addressing in its own way, is that we should know if there is anything legislatively required in order to do this in the best way before we approve the bill. There is the question of scrutineering in long-term care facilities. As much as we have talked a bit about how to staff those, there is still the question of having scrutineers come in.
Those are my initial thoughts. I can see the Speaker is anxious to get on with the orders of the day. Thank you very much for your grace in allowing me to conclude.